Nietzsche Contra Psychoanalysis

This paper was presented to the sixth annual conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society, September 1996.


In Civilisation and its Discontents, Freud writes of society as binding people together by by means of Eros, so stimulating a lot of aggressive urges which are denied satisfaction, and which therefore turn against the self in the form of guilt, which makes for unhappiness. Despite resemblances to ideas floated in the Genealogy of Morals, this position is crucially different from Nietzsche's doctrine of will to power. In his mature philosophy, Nietzsche's interest was focussed not so much upon direct speculations about happiness and how to achieve it, as upon the threat faced to the individual from demoralising ideas. This sets him against the pessimism of Freud's view.

Freud can be so initially plausible, that it is not immediately easy to see how he is wrong. His writing has the appearance of sound science, or at least of something that might be true. Nietzsche would not wish to reject whatever can be established as scientific reality. However the scientific nature of Freud's work has been seriously impugned. Some would hold with Frank Cioffi that Wittgenstein's criticisms of Freud's methods of argument offer a conclusive refutation. Recently attention has focussed on Freud's heavy use of cocaine throughout his career. Elizabeth Thornton sees his theories as a mixture of what was even at the time obsolete medicine, and something approaching cocaine psychosis.

Whatever his scientific credentials his writing remains in many ways deeply interesting and attractive. Works like Totem and Taboo, and Moses and Monotheism offer substantial intellectual meat which again can seem like an extension of Nietzsche's speculations, even if we feel with Wittgenstein that Freud shows a fascinating cleverness rather than wisdom. However our enthusiasm can wane when confronted with some of the authority he still continues to exert, and with some of the consequences of his ideas. If his genius was essentially for persuasion and propaganda, then he is fair game for people with objectives of their own.

Few who read the Interpretation of Dreams to the end would deny that it is a work of genius. As a scientific explanation of dreaming, Freud produces a convincing hypothesis, both coordinating earlier thought and accounting for a range of undoubted facts. He reminds us of almost forgotten things, like childhood anxiety dreams. Wish fulfilment is a very plausible motive, unravelling the connections between what he calls the dream thought and the dream work. This can seem a great intuitive leap, like Newton or Darwin. It lends itself to exploration and development. Unconscious wishes from infancy are like a magical clue to the real sources of satisfaction, suggesting deep insight into what we really are, what we really want. Instead of what one normally wants, one may come to want this infantile satisfaction. Some credit Freud with devising a mythology; it is like a version of the fall of man with a programme for restoring Adam to Paradise.

Normally childhood sexuality would seem trivial and unsatisfying from an adult viewpoint. Unless there is some access to these childish wishes, some way of identifying with them, the therapy could not work. So we have the idea that the infantile concerns are both present and accessible. An unconscious wish is something that could become conscious, almost by definition. So his explanation of dreaming holds out a promise of a certain kind of satisfaction, an immersion in a certain kind of hope.

Much of the charm of Freud's basic idea is in its orientation to the future. It hints that real fulfilment lies in these unconscious drives, rooted in early infancy. So the business of achieving life satisfaction is something deeply uncompetitive, even solipsistic. Its power as a programme is dependent upon belief, like a meditation. It works if and only if you believe it. That is part of its neatness, even if its actual record is disappointing.

Freud claimed to have been in important respects anticipated, though not influenced, by Nietzsche. He said he was surprised when first reading Nietzsche how much he fitted with his own discoveries. However, psychoanalytic thought has often developed in directions deeply and explicitly hostile to him. An instructive example is the work of a modern Freudian, Daniel Pick, author of the books Faces of Degeneration and The War Machine.

Psychoanalysis is here applied to areas of the history of ideas, loosely relating respectively to concepts of degeneration and nineteenth and early twentieth century thought on war. Pick's approach is so disapproving that one can get the impression of reading heresiology, recalling something like the Church Father Irenaueus on the gnostics. He avoids a straightforward attack on the ideas he appears to dislike. He tries to get behind them, treating them not as defensible positions but as expressions of fear and weakness. Many of his assumptions are by no means explicit, but it is possible to extract an argument that is coherent and interesting.

The implicit moral drawn is of appalling danger. For Nietzsche himself he expresses aversion as a sayer of terrible things. So many tempting lines of thought, including, but not especially Nietzsche, led to disaster, namely holocaust and war. Nonetheless their potent attraction is something he wants to recognise and to provide for. His solution again is not explicit, but not hard to grasp. Exploring the lure of rage and hatred in the psychoanalytic session, is a way of realising the attraction while neutralising the danger.

In Faces of Degeneration he writes:-

'My attention has been drawn to the drama of a felt historical & historiographical powerlessness. Degeneration functioned at once as a means, never wholly successful, of containing, covering over, mastering, profound political confusion & disorientation'. p237

Such statements can be intimidating & impressive. He writes with an air of great confidence, though he leaves many questions open. There is an underlying suggestion that political disorientation is a step on the road to Auschwitz. So what exactly for him is sound political understanding? He hints at an allegiance, one he does not presumably feel a need to argue, perhaps his underlying premise is that it is outside the scope of argument.

The book reads like an attack on all kinds of loosely connected ideas centred around the degeneration (Entartung in German) which pervaded nineteenth century psychiatry and featured significantly in Nietzsche's work as well as that of his opponent Nordau. Such ideas appear throughout the political spectrum, so he talks of a 'discourse of degeneration' that cuts across left & right. This discourse he presents largely as an expression of insecurities & anxieties. The concept of degeneration is extended to take in such things as the crowd theory of Gustav Le Bon, which has little connection with the psychiatric concept originated by Morel. The psychoanalytic perspective consists in looking for unconscious motives. This he presents as an advance on nineteenth century positivistic approaches to the history of ideas, which tried to recapture the author's intentions.

'This study is indebted to, & in part dependant on, a culture of psychoanalysis which in crucial respects has helped us move beyond the languages of nineteenth century positivism, & a history of ideas concerned only to reconstruct authorial intentions'. p230

To someone inspired by Nietzsche, whose friends are mostly sort of ex hippies, this 'culture of psychoanalysis' suggests a strange and somewhat precious way of being. It offers a way of bypassing Nietzsche's interpretation of life as a conflict of wills.

What he says about unconscious motives behind Lombroso's ideas on hereditary criminality, certain perceived difficulties with extreme rural backwardness following the risorgimento, is interesting, and arguably advances historical knowledge. If this is the unconscious, then it is a useful enough conception. But there is danger in a spurious perspective that refuses to encounter ideas on their own level, and claims to refute by means of the unconscious motive.

Whether bringing the Freudian philosophy into the history of ideas, really amounts to an improvement is at least questionable. We are not obliged to accept that Freud has significantly advanced human knowledge. It may be thought there is something about the whole psychoanalytic approach that weakens, sickens, and depresses. This perspective does not engage in a full frontal attack, it gets behind ideas, explains them away, seeing an idea not as expression of will to power, but as weakness. To say a belief or a cause is the expression of powerlessness & misunderstanding treats it as wrong without confronting it on its own ground, independently assuming the truth of an opposing idea. Psychoanalysis is used as a way of undermining your confidence in your ideas. It is a kind of interesting illness, well defended against other ways of being.

Pick writes:- "One weakness of the Foucaultian power/knowledge model which informs much recent discussion of the human sciences, from anthropology to criminology to medical psychiatry is that by focussing on the presumed strategic effects of certain shifts in the perception of, say, crime, madness, race & sexuality, it often underplays the internal textual struggle, the work of representation needed to achieve the illusion of unity, of singular power & mastery. One needs to address simultaneously the 'force' of a felt crisis of powerlessness in certain texts & ideologies, the complex transformation of social anxiety & political fear into seemingly self possessed imperious & 'imperialist' discourse".


In his second book, The War Machine, subtitled 'the rationalisation of slaughter in the modern world', some of what he is doing becomes clearer. One may be initially impressed by the erudition, & a scrupulous concern to avoid judgements.

He sets out 'to explore a world of representations which sets in play a "common sense" & a debate about wars, states, & states of mind, which is still very much contemporary for us, or at least upon which we still draw' (p. 18). He examines a variety of writings, from the 1830s to the 1930s, loosely linked by the theme of war. He ranges among philosophers, social scientists, journalists, popular fiction, war propaganda. Much of what he finds are commonplaces that could come from almost any period. More interesting to a historian is some that was unique to the period leading up to the war, the idea of an unstoppable rush towards war. He explores the idea of the First World War as a disaster expressing forces beyond conscious control, many of which he finds in the ideas & opinions of the writers of which he treats. Accordingly he presents much of the culture of a century ago, including some of the considered thought of the most eminent writers of their day, essentially as unhealthy delusions, though not in so many words. He sees a problem of why so many people sought to justify war.

"….my principle concern lies in the interrelations & reverberations between these writings; the aim is indeed to convey the reader into a kind of echo chamber of historical thought on war".

The writers mentioned, each have very different things to say. Spencer's anti militarism comes in for as much implicit disapproval as von Treitschke's nationalistic bellicosity; in common is the implied wrongheadedness many of their assumptions, which are treated as rationalisations. This wrongheadedness is not made explicit. The impression meant to be given is that we are placed in a complex discourse, looking to see what illumination any of these might throw on our subject. They seem like heresies in that they all contain partial truths but "we are all guilty". There are ideas that both contain a measure of illumination, & are themselves a part of the problem. There is the aim of involving us in the discourse. He is not doing just bare history, or historiography. This is material for present discussion, how to think & write about war.

The fragmentary nature of many of these ideas as he presents them, means there is no space to criticise them in detail. So they come across as a disconnected assemblage of hypotheses, which are either attractive or repellent. Where there is no prima facie scientific basis for rejection, then it can look as if we are free to adopt whatever we find attractive.

Pick evidently has firm opinions about what ideas ought not to prevail. If so many ideas are wrong, others must be right, so we would like to know precisely what for him these sound ideas are, & what is the rational basis for preferring them, perhaps against our immediate inclinations.

Much of the material treated might be criticised as pseudo science, basing elaborate structures of supposed truth on seriously inadequate foundations, such as the science of eugenics, & racist theories. However this objection is only as powerful as it might be if what has replaced these ideas is clearly much sounder. It is not difficult to expose as pseudo science, a whole range of politically incorrect ideas from the past, nationalist, elitist, anti feminist, racist, militaristic, illiberal. But that can hardly be the real objection. Are such attitudes rooted in any more false science than the ideas he favours, like the equality of sexes & races & cultures? Is it demonstrated that equal rights beliefs produce less false science than elitist principles? If they do, what is the explanation for it?

That the objectionable ideas, elitist, nationalist or militarist, are contrary to the principles of the modern, if not the 19th century, left, should be incidental, unless it has to be assumed in advance that we share those principles. The argument mostly implicit is the danger. Thought about war could be one of the factors that led to war. Avoidance of war is presumably a reasonable aim most of us would share. The implication is that these ways of thinking led to war, & some to Auschwitz. This gives a rationale for censorship and political correctness. Such an argument should be fairly applied. One could easily propose equivalent arguments to serve opposite political ends. One might mention the fashionable Marxism Pol Pot and the other Khmer Rouge leaders picked up in Paris in the sixties. Egalitarian doctrines, not to mention dreams of collective prosperity & happiness, led to Stalin's massacres. One could easily descend to yah boo politics. The only important question is whether such ideas still present a danger.

Pick concentrates on the irrationality of the 1st world war, scarcely touching other ways of looking at it. He does not bother to refute arguments for the rationality of the struggle. He does not treat of the seriousness of the experience of total war, of the threat of foreign invasion & its reality, of fight for survival.

Without in any way committing ourselves, we can try to look honestly at other possible interpretations. On an alternative interpretation of the very same material, before 1914 there was cultural instability in Europe, with all kinds of conflicting programmes. In retrospect one may identify with some & despise others. The conflict really was fought out, whether or not it should have been. The war against Germany was completely won, not finally in 1918, but in 1945.

On such a view, contrary to Pick's insinuation, most of his research is irrelevant to present conditions, at least in the sense he claims for it. He says that he aims 'to call into question some of the cliches of our current discourse, the platitudes which still have their purchase today, their numbing & exonerating effect' & that 'Many of the writings surveyed here have profound resonances - much to say to us about war & peace'. But this loses some of its force if no comparable danger exists today. If the war was a battle for domination on the part of the upstart German culture, & as such a struggle for the future of civilisation, then the revelation of the holocaust destroyed the German bid most effectively, once & for all, whatever conflicts & divisions remain within our society.

To treat the explicit issues inspiring the 1st world war as unworthy of serious consideration, is to refuse to play, but the game went on nonetheless, & historical conditions changed. Whether or not we see the war as irrational, real alternatives were fought over, & ultimately resolved. This can apply even on a pacifist view, whether we consider the aims of politicians or the feelings of those who fought.

In consequence interest in these ideas is not perilous, they are not to be handled only at arm's length, delving endlessly into basic assumptions in the effort to see how such contamination could ever have arisen. We can look squarely at the free speculations of an earlier era. We can even consider the supposed moral benefits of war, an idea virtually as old as civilisation, discussing this interesting opinion for what it is worth. If we reject it we should be able to put up an honest argument against it.

This looking for unconscious motives is the same method of not confronting causes head on. He emasculates many of the causes people have felt to be most important. Nationalistic ideas & sentiments he will only treat as symptoms. He even alludes to Moore & Russell's attack on Hegelianism, the fountainhead of a great philosophical movement, virtually as if this was part of some xenophobic syndrome, & they ought to have accepted Hegel:- 'Hegel it was feared had polluted England. He was a philosophical force to be monitored, mopped up & sluiced away……..the continuing critique of, & anxiety about, the pernicious effects of German idealism, culminating in Moore & Russell's restoration of empiricism' (p. 133).

Evidently he favours Hegel whom he treats less as a symptom than a source of illumination. Hegel, he writes 'explained' that war 'is a means of binding the nation & starkly separating inner & outer, sameness & difference' (p. 133). Of course his real hero is Freud, who may well qualify as a pseudo scientist. He refers to Eysenck's attack on Freud, which he evidently resents. His defence of the latter involves treating Eysenck as a case study, pointing out his use of warlike metaphors. Presumably what pleasure I feel in the assault I am preparing on Pick's ideas, would be taken as bearing out some of his thesis. Freud's thought is to him of a different order from most of the other writers he discusses. 'Psychoanalysis cannot rightly be viewed as the mere recapitulation of earlier thought on war', he writes (p.265). That may be, but what is to give it its privileged status?

Between the heresies he depicts & his solutions, or explanations, what is the dividing line? What makes Freud & Hegel acceptable when so many other writers are patronised or effectively condemned? It is admitted that Freud is at times racist, & at times praises war. Obviously Freud is involved in whatever guilt attaches to such attitudes.

Presented with the question of what we are to think in terms of psychoanalytic thought on war, we may feel as if we have stumbled where we do not belong, like atheists at a Catholic convention. Though he says he has no thesis he begins from Freud. The very intractability & difficulty of the problem suggests the need for a form of censorship. In a way that recalls the doctrine of original sin, Freud & Hegel themselves are not exempt from evil. He does not claim they are exempt, & this is part of the point he is trying to make.

The danger of certain lines of thought is that they can lead to catastrophe, yet their very attraction suggests they particularly express human instinct. Also most significantly he presents the idea that war actually offers release for aggressive drives, that find expression as an unconscious will to war. The lure of destructive ideas is something he wants to recognise. So psychoanalysis, in offering a form of therapy, also offers understanding. It says the psyche has such and such a character. Exploring the lure of rage and hatred in the psychoanalytic session, carries with it all the pride of hidden knowledge as well as the promise of catharsis. Suppose this knowledge is all illusion, expressing only the will to power of some particular group? Then the practice may amount to an extreme form of decadent self indulgence.

We can now see precisely the use to which he puts this Freudian concept of the death instinct. It is that there is a temptation in all these dangerous ideas, tempting precisely because they are dangerous. Therefore they are supposed to reveal something intrinsic to the human mind. Rather than taking them at face value, and trying to refute them, accepting that some causes flourish and others fail, they are seen as something to be managed like wild beasts that must be kept under restraint. The psychoanalytic perspective is claimed to reveal this destructive war machine, the motives that drive it, the ideas that lead to it and are part of it. These are conceived as expressions of desire. The tendency to form and favour such ideas is seen as something deep in human nature. This is the self destructive flaw in man.

What plausibility this view possesses may be something to do with the way he presents the ideas, like a collection of disconnected hypotheses. In this way they can appear as dangerous temptations, appealing to destructive and aggressive impulses. But how can individual aggression create something like war? There is a problem of how individual hostility can find satisfaction in going to war, in being conscripted, bullied by sergeant majors, and all that involves. This is presumably susceptible of a Freudian explanation.

The 'war machine' hypothesis is not something defended, it is like a mosaic put together from other people's ideas. Some people thought there was this deranged machine, so he builds up this viewpoint. It acquires a huge moral claim because of its suggested application to some present threat of nuclear disaster. The hypothesis he has built up is a fact, in the sense that it is a possible construction of the facts. The Freudian pessimism is a hypothesis to explain the existence of this hypothesis.

From the belief that thought has this dangerous character, we seem to be led into a form of irrationalism, the principle that we are not to question some authority because to do so might have catastrophic consequences. This is to articulate a new form of pessimism to compare with Schopenhauer or Von Hartmann in the nineteenth century, one appropriate to our own age, with its characteristic concerns and dogmas. Theoretically one might imagine such a philosophy could become fashionable and find artistic expression. It is much more intellectualised than simple political correctness, which can seem merely frustrating in its crude moralism. Such articulation is a creative achievement, a successful effort of will, it suggests its opposite, much as Nietzsche's philosophy was originally suggested by reflections on Schopenhauer. It can seem self refuting in its very rationality. If after Nietzsche pessimism was to be a whip to beat shallow optimists, perhaps a new pessimism could provide a new whip.

Pick goes far beyond Freud's death instinct hypothesis. His view is not simply that there is a drive to self destruction, but that even our efforts to understand our predicament are driven on a dangerous and self destructive course. The ideas we are attracted to are poisonous. We cannot trust our intuition, because we are inspired by a self destructive aggression, all the criminal and murderous urges that Freud finds in us. So we have to find an outlet for these, neutralise them, and on Freud's own principles this is to be on the analysts couch, where you chat away about all kinds of atrocious feelings that must never be allowed practical expression. The incorrect idea is therefore something like a murderous desire.

Against the Nietzschean point that most states of affairs involve the triumph of some cause, he would hold that his perspective is deeper. Unless we feel that our desires are dangerous, we have not understood, have not made contact with the forces that really move us. Self indulgence and censorship go together, for society as well as for the individual. This has consequences for how much freepiritedness we should be wiling to accept. If thought were as uninhibited as it was in turn of the century Vienna, if we were as thoughtful and clever as 100 years ago, if we had a really brilliant intellectual and artistic culture, would that tend to generate war? Presumably, if we were to think in all the old patterns, but there is hardly any reason to imagine we would do that.

Censoring out the dangerous, we are apparently to accept politically correct ideas which may not fit well with our instincts and desires, but where are these to come from? One suspects the source may be Marx, but again this is not explicit. Pick's perspective of 'powerlessness' could easily be turned on himself. In any idea, there is possible weakness & possible strength, hope of success or fear of defeat. Using much the same material the most diverse points can be made. With the same perspective and the same material, we could easily produce alternative speculations of our own, undermining Pick's own values. Or is he underpinned by the power and strength of a coherent Marxism?

From a more Nietzschean viewpoint, arguments from dead controversies acquire a fresh kind of usefulness. There is a way of writing intellectual history which makes a central issue out of the rebellious demand for intellectual and spiritual freedom, a cause the value of which there are powerful interests to deny. With a motive to upset an actual or proposed consensus, itself likely to be the expression of the massed prejudices of comfortable mediocrity, there is liberation in exploring all dissident views. They can be allies in the fight against coercive dogma, against insidious efforts to win our assent to judgements which do not stand close logical examination. If once they seemed natural, & now they seem unnatural, that reflects our new situation, & is a large part of their interest for us. They need not be dangerous in the sense of leading us where we do not want to go. Knowing where we stand & what we want, committed to humane principles and the retention of our democratic freedoms, we can look without danger.


There are parallels between Pick's own theme and some of the writers he warns about, notably Nietzsche's vitriolic early opponent Max Nordau. In his book Degeneration, Nordau attacks culture he asserts to be degenerate, sometimes ideas which consciously perceive themselves as decadent, proudly carrying the label. Pick's target is the ideas of degeneration themselves, both scientific theories & art which embodies them. In both cases there is perceived to be something attractive about such ideas, they have a lure, which both writers attribute to a kind of weakness, or powerlessness; degeneracy to Nordau, with all the threat to life and society envisaged by contemporary medical science; disorientation and political confusion, to Pick.

Nordau's way of dismissing unsympathetic cultural phenomena expresses an attitude which is not without appeal even today, & which can tempt when applied to ideas we dislike. Some might want for example to apply it to much modern French philosophy.

The immediate objection to degeneration theory is the oppressive use to which it may be put, the prohibitionist mentality it promotes. Nordau induces anxiety with his physiological determinism, presenting the source of our values as something we may not even understand. This can obviously be depressing. Likewise Freud's concept of the neurotic can sometimes come across as a value judgement directed at a discontent one disapproves of, dismissing what is conscious and explicit.

Why is it thought important to discuss or teach these things? Nordau because he seems to see them as deluding a generation. Pick perhaps because he sees them as exerting a continuing temptation, to be dealt with psychoanalytically. Some ideas being dangerous, & having dangerous consequences are also illuminating. Nordau's degenerate ideas also have a lure, as does Wagner's 'corrupt civilisation'.

These themes are Biblical. What the Bible understood by sin and lewdness has a notorious attraction. Reading the Bible it is easy to side with the enemies of God. Such perversity gives a way of relating to new ideas as well as old ones. From the decadent movement of the 1890s to the pop art of the 1960s, artists have explored the allure of the negative and threatening, teaching us how to enjoy what we would normally repudiate.

Parallels have been made between Freud and Wagner, Wagner and Hegel. Adapting Pick's metaphor, we can think in terms of an echo chamber of temptation and decadence. Wagner, writes of resisting the lure of corrupt civilisation, itself rather like an Old Testament value, Nietzsche of Wagner's seductive decadence. Nordau writes luridly and excitingly on the fascination of Nietzsche's degenerate and dangerous ideas, Pick decries the harmfulness of Nordau's degeneration concept. This paper attempts a Nietzschean critique of Pick's own decadence, his morality of the weak, his interesting sickness. From the Nietzschean angle, we see that he has built up something like a new priestly corruption. We can identify the workings of his own will to power.

All these ideas of decadence have something in common. All deplore the entertaining of beliefs and sentiments that are harmful to the subject and/or the society he lives in. Each writer has a different view of what there is to be feared. Several different layers persist in Nietzsche, who largely accepts the science of his time. Sociological, physiological, racial and political concepts of decadence all appear in his writings. Nietzsche may be prepared to accept these concepts, but they are not what primarily worries him. Pursuing his own chains of thought he sometimes outgrows and overcomes them.


Psychoanalysis does not present itself to itself as a form of depravity, but on a medical model, as a movement towards understanding & liberation. It usually comes across as virtuous and humourless. However, if we reject its claim to put us uniquely in touch with truth, we look differently on what it offers its devotees. Even we expose it as based on pure illusion, that does not destroy its interest, though we would be unlikely to want to undergo the treatment. Phrases like the prostitution of friendship have been applied to it. Nietzsche condemns 'introspection', or 'navel gazing' as 'a degenerate form of the psychologist's genius' (Will to Power §426), that suggests Pascal. Pschyoanalysis is more reminiscent of Baudelaire, offering enjoyment of perverse emotions, combined with all the pride of secret knowledge. It has been pointed out that Freud developed his ideas in the age of Beardsley, when art and literature were pervaded by perverse erotic symbolism, especially in Vienna. Salvador Dali, himself saturated in Nietzsche as a young man, used psychoanalysis for his own brand of decadent affirmation, restoring the humour and scrapping the morality. Orthodox psychoanalysis is still very moralistic. Although it uncovers all the grossest selfishness, which it claims to underlie all our actions, it regards this as a force itself opposed to society & the individual. It considers restraint to be very necessary, though it 'liberates' the most anti social instincts.

For Nietzsche, the mind is not self destructive except among decadent people. However there is a challenge presented by these pessimistic ideas. It is a demoralising suggestion, something to be refuted, that greater happiness lies with error. Nietzsche promises a pleasure that will be in no way less than that offered by the negative and decadent ideas he attacks. He desires to account for and harness what is exciting in them, without yielding to the sickness. He is clear about what is to be avoided. As he writes in Twilight p 34. 'To have to combat one's instincts, that is the formula for decadence: as long as life is ascending, happiness & instinct are one.

He is referring to Socrates, of whom he wrote a few lines previously:- p32- 'His case was after all only the extreme case, only the most obvious instance of what had at that time begun to be the universal exigency: that no one was any longer master of himself, that the instincts were becoming mutually antagonistic.


Keeping in mind the ambiguities of the terms involved, we may try to identify Nietzsche's most interesting, most considered position on decadence. One point is that we need not worry about degeneracy or mediocrity as such. On his model of individual health 'happiness and instinct are one'. Whatever we are we express a will to power. Whether or not this matches some external standard is hardly important. The threat we face is from demoralising ideas, morality of the weak, which is the way that decadence can infect the healthy part of the organism.

Ideas are not to cure a physiologically based decadence, which may even be hereditary. However they are vital in protecting against other ideas embodying morality of the weak. The interests of the individual and society do not have to coincide, nor do the decadence of society and that of the individual mutually imply each other. But when the instincts conflict, that is a recipe for frustration and disaster. Morality of the weak insists that there is a conflict, that the instincts are dangerous and have to be restrained. It promotes conflict by creating a confusing antithesis between happiness and knowledge. Freud's position does this by invoking the dangerousness, and hence the fear, of the uninhibited instinct.

If the right ideas rule, ideas meant to be encapsulated in the will to power concept, then the exercise of decadent impulses will do little harm. The decadent individual will not be able to impose his own valuation. Decadence is natural, a form of defecation. Nietzsche's argument is directed against the morality of the weak, the demoralising idea, pessimistic ideas. Otherwise we leave well alone and what is healthy will flourish. He writes:- 'Decadence itself is not a thing that can be withstood. It is absolutely necessary and is proper to all ages & all peoples. That which must be withstood, & by all means in our power, is the spreading of the contagion among sound parts of the organism' (Will to Power §41).

In this there is no mystery, no pseudo science. To secure against the contagion there is no need to exterminate or sterilise. Not only can we not be sure of the real causes of decadence, the chances are the wrong people will be in charge of any eugenic programme, which would certainly be dangerous. Comparable perils may be thought to face the modern world with genetic engineering. The tyranny of the weak over the strong is the thing to be feared, not the existence of decadence in the physiological sense. New power brings new possibilities for the weak and mediocre to mould the destiny of humanity with their censorship and prohibitions.

Some decadence is past cure. We permit it to exist but not to flourish to the extent of allowing its perspective to prevail over our own. We assert that to be a false perspective. If you are decadent you live in your own way. You may still contribute to the culture, perhaps uniquely. You may have one exceptional talent. Even if you reproduce, your genes may do some good, for all anyone knows. That which is destined to die will do so. But if out of your resentment you develop a perspective of so called knowledge, setting up your decadent existence as an ideal for all, identifying it with happiness, this is something that has to be argued down. We say it expresses a clear untruth that can be demonstrated as such.

Decadence has other manifestations, apart from a straight clash between instinct and self preservation. Self deception is one, obviously as involving some kind of division of aims, an unwillingness to face the truth. Part of the decadence Nietzsche identifies in Wagner, consists in the desire to dogmatise, or 'tyrannise' as he puts it. Presumably this is because of the dishonesty that this must involve, signalling weakness and self deception as compared with the openness of frank disputation. In Zarathustra he writes that neither a slave mor a tyrant is capable of friendship. Insofar as psychoanalysis shows intolerance and dogmatism this may suggest similar criticisms.


Looking closer at the falsification that has been perpetrated we can see that Pick's doctrine is not even the pessimism that it seems to be, any more than was Schopenhauer's philosophy. It contains its own triumphalism and quite ruthless will to power. Like Wagner's ambition it conceals what it is, which is another of Nietzsche's marks of decadence, presumably as meaning dishonesty, weakness and inner conflict. The use of argumentum ad hominem is surely permissible in this case. Pick is the great nephew of Melanie Klein, acutely conscious of his ancestral heritage, Jewish, Central European, psychoanalytic.

He does clearly have a cause, he has values that he cherishes, cultural axes to grind. One of these is cosmopolitanism. He may see the dispute between Britain & Germany as insignificant, he might not think much of English freedom, but that is not to say he does not have opinions, even a chauvinism, of his own, even that he does not identify with something quite precise on any map of pre-war European attitudes. This is something much more deep rooted than a mere revulsion from the holocaust. He is not totally against war, he wants to promote a Freudian way of looking at it. At one point he considers what to him is evidently a strange question:- 'Could war sometimes be justified?', like to defeat nazism, That he is opposed to various nationalisms from this position is understandable, but he does not squarely admit this.

The ideal he espouses involves the pride of this knowledge. It seems to involve exploring the lure of all kinds of 'perverse' desires, allowing them, cultivating them, in the belief that you are exploring the innermost recesses of the psyche. This is not the principle that what does not destroy me makes me stronger. The way in which he promotes his ideas suggests priestly corruption, not just the pride of knowledge but the desire to impose that on everyone else.

It is hard to believe that these ideas, however original, will have much of a future. Though this subtle, dishonest will to power, this partly articulated philosophy is in many ways intriguing, from an orthodox historian's viewpoint it is misconceived. Ingenious as it is it is hard to imagine it exerting any significant influence. Perhaps Freud will go quite out of fashion. Perhaps it is an irrelevant byway, an ideological cul de sac. But Pick deserves at least a footnote in the history of modern irrationalism.

William James's essay The Moral Equivalent of War, published in 1910, is a key text for The War Machine. Pick says it should be read as a useful preface to Freud on war. James envisaged a more or less socialist future, which he admits would be intolerably stifling unless balanced by something more exciting. Rather than such spontaneous solutions as drug culture and football hooliganism, what he proposes sounds more like conscription, outward bound projects and boot camps. 'With its quasi Nietzschean contempt for femininity, impotence, softness and peace, the 'socialist' and 'pacifist' James wants to transpose all that is good about war into the economy of a permanent peace'. Nietzsche was not especially keen on the struggle for existence. The predicted socialist future may well be boring but that would not be because of the achievement of economic security. That should release the energies of mankind for use in the struggle of all against all, which is the real point of existence. World weariness would result from the dominance of negative ideas which have not been overcome.

An ideal of uncovering the truth, always under attack from special motives, should provide a sufficient cause. Other people's ideals and values exert an uncomfortable, sometimes an intolerable, pressure. The true joy of life is overcoming them by demonstrating the falsity of the principles on which they rest. That should offer an inspiring enough programme for a long time to come.

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